One frame at a time 

Before Shrek: an animated story

Got a case of the rubbery, hyper-real digital animation blues? Watching movies like Shrek and Finding Nemo, it’s easy to forget that once upon a time animators had to do everything the hard way: without computers. Before Linux and DreamWorks and Pixar, independent animators could still sidestep technological limitations with resourcefulness and imagination. Nowadays, with practically limitless (not to mention labor-saving) possibilities for digital image-making in mainstream feature animation, there’s little need for resourcefulness, and the imagination itself is still trying to catch up with the capabilities of the new medium. That’s what I think, anyway. Rent Toy Story for effortless eye candy; use your computer to track down the work of these animators for artistic—not technological—innovation, shoestring ingenuity and real pioneering spirit.

Ladislaw Starewicz (1882–1965)
Born in Moscow and raised in Lithuania, Ladislaw Starewicz took little interest in formal schooling but combined his interests in photography and entomology to make The Cameraman’s Revenge, a charming tale of infidelity and forgiveness performed entirely by insects. The plot: Married life is too staid for Mr. Beetle, so he takes frequent trips to the city to consort with a sexy dancer—a dragonfly. A punch-up ensues when a paparazzi bug takes compromising photos of Mr. Beetle and his paramour trysting at a miniature hotel.

Starewicz stumbled on the idea of animating bug models when his plan to film a live stag-beetle fight proved too frustrating: “I waited days and days to shoot a battle,” he later recalled, “but they would not fight with the lights shining on them. So I tried [model] animals…I liked molding them so much that I continued.” Not yet savvy to trick photography (this was in 1912, by the way), audience members reportedly left screenings of The Cameraman’s Revenge asking aloud, “How on earth did he teach those bugs to act?” A six-film DVD anthology spanning Starewicz’s career from 1912 to 1958 includes The Mascot, a completely deranged work in which a collection of toy dolls sentenced to be sold at the market escape en route and live on the streets. If Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas touched a special weird place in your brain, The Mascot will slam it with a cruise missile.

Winsor McCay (1871–1934)
Around the time Starewicz started puttering with his bugs, an American editorial cartoonist named Winsor McCay was giving himself carpal tunnels making thousands of individual sketches for animated movies inspired by his son’s “flip-books.” One such film, 1911’s Little Nemo, required over 4,000 such sketches, produced over four years, painstakingly drawn and redrawn for each subsequent frame. The colossal task of draftsmanship required for McCay’s films became metafiction in 1921’s Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, in which the animator, starring as himself, agrees to produce 4,000 drawings in a month amidst much taunting by his friends.

Before he retired from filmmaking in the ’20s, McCay’s ambition culminated with The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), which required over 25,000 separate drawings to recreate the 1915 torpedoing of the famous ocean liner. Unfortunately, the Great War was already over (and the Lusitania incident no longer relevant) by the time he finished it.

Lotte Reiniger (1899–1981)
Honors for first-ever feature-length animated film are a bit contentious. There are indications of one produced around 1910 in Argentina (the same country, incidentally, generally credited with producing the first hardcore movie pornography—quite the dual distinction, but can you think of the last recent Argentinean feature you’ve seen?). But for lack of evidence, the pioneer distinction generally goes to The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), produced by German animator and puppet-theater artist Lotte Reiniger.

The fairy-tale look of Reiniger’s films—she created over 80 of them in a career that spanned six decades—is unmistakable, and sublime pleasures abound in every one of them. A gifted silhouette-cutter, Reiniger animated her films by placing intricately articulated lead and cardboard cutouts against amazingly detailed backgrounds of translucent paper, lit from below and filmed from above. The supple, lifelike movement she imparted to the human, animal, and supernatural creatures rivals anything Disney, with its armies of animators, has ever produced. No mean feat, considering she rendered them all in silhouette. And mostly by herself, working with a small team of assistants who were mostly on hand to operate the camera.

Prince Achmed remains Reiniger’s masterpiece, a conflation of several tales from A Thousand and One Nights comprising over 300,000 individual frames filmed over three years. Pure magic—if you’re moved to seek out only one of the films in this article, make it this one. A DVD version also includes some early advertising spots, and a marvelous documentary on Reiniger by Katja Raganelli.

Norman McLaren (1914–1987)
When the name Norman McLaren is recognized outside of Canada, it’s generally in connection with his Academy Award-winning 1952 short, Neighbors. Once described as the “most eloquent plea for peace ever filmed,” the film depicts unraveling relations between two suburban neighbors who find a beautiful flower poking up along a contested property line. To depict both the men’s initial ecstasy over the exquisite flower and the mounting violence of their feud (it ends in startling but still quasi-humorous genocide), McLaren used the technique of pixilation, directing the two actors in a series of frame-by-frame poses that enable them to “fly” around the yard, build and un-build fences with the wave of a hand, and swim the back-stroke around the grassy lawn.

Profoundly humanistic as it is, though, Neighbours is one of just a few of the over 70 films McLaren produced to make use of human actors at all. The Scottish-born filmmaker focused mostly on abstract, cameraless, “hand-made” cinema, and in this respect he was an innovator in too many ways to count. Lines: Horizontal (1962) is exactly that: a series of black lines drawn directly onto the film, rising, falling and proliferating to ghostly folk music by Pete Seeger. It’s the film equivalent of composer Terry Riley’s In C: You just can’t watch it the same way twice.

Sometimes McLaren actually drew his own music by making minute pen-strokes directly onto the film’s magnetized sound strip, carefully shaping each one to produce the desired volume, timbre, length and pitch. Now that is amazing.

The Cameraman’s Revenge & Other Fantastic Tales, Winsor McKay: The Master Edition, The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Norman McLaren: The Collector’s Edition are available on VHS and DVD from Milestone Films,

Jan Svankmajer (1934–)
The former Eastern Bloc countries have a rich history of stop-motion animation—all kinds of animation actually. It might have something to do with economy—a hundred-foot roll of film can last an animator months—and it might have something to do with politics and Soviet censorship herding them into ostensibly “safe” territory: animated films for children that adults enjoy equally, if a little differently.

Whatever the reason, the former Czechoslovakia has produced some of the movies’ most gifted animators, often working with fairy tales and themes from national folklore. One film worth tracking down is a surreal 1954 musical version of Hansel and Gretel, subtitled “An Opera Fantasy,” unconvincingly passed off as an American film, and performed by freaky, yodeling clay figures in Black Forest garb. It will hurt your mind, but in a (mostly) good way.

The best-known Czech animator is Jan Svankmajer, whose films have more layers of ick and ambient creepiness that anything dreamt up by Tim Burton or David Lynch, and on a fraction of the budget. Start with the disturbing Alice, move up to the puppet version of Faust and then see if you can get comfortable with the mostly live-action, sexless sexual-fetish movie Conspirators of Pleasure and Little Otik, which has a carnivorous tree-branch baby as its main animated attraction. “Comfortable” might not be the right word.

Several Svankmajer features and collections are available from Kino on Video:

The Brothers Quay (1947–)
Cinema’s most inscrutable identical twin animator brothers, born and raised in Philadelphia, strongly influenced by Jan Svankmajer, the Quays (Timothy and Stephen) fled to art school in England, where, for the past two decades, they have created over a dozen perplexing, obsessively animated stop-motion films. And doing very little, as Michael Atkinson puts it in his thoughtful essay, “The Night Countries of the Brothers Quay,” to dispel their mythic image as “reclusive twins secretively tinkering like deranged watchmakers with the subconscious detritus of forgotten Euroculture.”

Full of creaks, stains, recycled household garbage, sickly colors and restless objects, Quay Brothers films suggest much but actually come out and say very little. The only way to navigate them, in fact, is to exchange one’s narrative expectations for the curious syntax of recurring dreams, which is exactly what they are—or perhaps nightmares. Street of Crocodiles (1986), based on a story by Bruno Schulz, is 21 minutes of brooding totalitarian menace built right into the drab gray of the decrepit miniature set.

The Brothers Quay Collection is available from Kino on Video:

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